While history points toward defeat, hopes run high as the No. 15 Auburn men’s basketball team travels to Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky to stand toe-to-toe with the Wildcats.
The Tigers (24-4, 11-4) are on a two-game winning streak against No. 8 Kentucky (23-5, 13-2) but have lost 17 straight at Rupp Arena and are 2-48 in their last 50 matchups in Lexington. But this game means more for the Tigers than just pride, it’s a seat at the table. As the top two teams in the SEC square off, the chance to be crowned the SEC regular season champion is on the line.
“There’s going to be some movement between now and the SEC tournament,” head coach Bruce Pearl said. “With three games left, if Kentucky wins they’re champions."
On Feb. 1 the Tigers gave Kentucky their all and dished out a 75-66 victory in the Auburn Arena. Now as the end of the month approaches, the Tigers have the opportunity to bookend the month with wins over the Wildcats. It’ll all come down to recreating the same magic that propelled them past the blue and white in the first place.
According to Pearl, that magic was hard defense and winning at the rim, whether that be on defense, offense or on the glass. Kentucky is a team known for dominating their opponents in all aspects of the game. It’ll take 40 minutes of hard play for Auburn to come out on top.
“I thought we played really hard,” Pearl said of the first matchup. “You have to be physical against Kentucky because they have such a physical offense. The way they screen, the way they move they’ll hit you and a lot of teams can wilt under that.”
This year the Wildcats have been unstoppable at home against SEC opponents. Kentucky averages 76 points per game at home while giving up about 66. The Wildcats also average 36 rebounds, force 11 turnovers and shoot 43 percent from the field on their home court.
Conversely, Auburn’s dominant home performances haven’t carried on to the road. The Tigers average 68.7 points per game while giving up more than 75. Auburn’s four-season losses have all come from in-conference opponents on the road. In each of these games, the Tigers have lost by a double-digit margin.
Auburn will have to rely on its core group of defensive veterans. Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore will match up against Nick Richards again. According to Pearl, McLemore and Wiley won’t be able to win the game at the rim, but if they can win come battles at the rim it will be a good start.
The defensively elite back court of Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick and Isaac Okoro will be challenged but are expected to trouble Kentucky’s four McDonalds All-American guards. The Wildcats lead the SEC in blocked shots with 147, but the Tigers will look to Okoro for the answer. The return of the freshman scoring threat may be just enough to spark Auburn’s offense back to life.
“Right now, Kentucky is in the driver’s seat,” Pearl said. “They’re one win against Auburn away from being SEC champions. They’re 48-2 in the last 50 times of playing there. It’s a monumental task to try and beat them there, so it’s going to be special and it’ll be historic.”
The Tigers and Wildcats will tip off at 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, with broadcasting handled by CBS.